Illustration: Jim Cooke/Gizmodo

Welcome back to Giz Asks, a series where we ask experts hard questions about science, technology, and humanity’s future. Today, we’re talking to conservationists, naturalists, and authors about whether the bear is ever your buddy.

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Late last year, a photo of a bear officiating a wedding in Russia went viral. The picture turned out to be fake, but its popularity says something significant about our conception of the species: Despite thousands of years of contrary evidence, and at least one harrowing documentary, human beings still on some level want to view bears as big, cuddly, forest-dwelling dogs.

Are we wrong to feel this way? Can a human and a wild bear have anything approaching a pet-like, or at least, non-lethal relationship? The example of Grizzly Man’s Timothy Treadwell, of course, haunts this line of questioning. But the experts we spoke with—people who have studied bears, lived among them, and worked to conserve their natural habitats—would reject the idea that any kind of bear-human bond will inevitably end in bloodshed. More or less all agree that every bear is a wild bear—that even if it playfully nuzzles you, or spends twenty years riding a tiny bicycle in your traveling circus, the odds of it suddenly mauling and/or eating you alive remain high. But opinions differ on just how close our two species can get, and what “closeness” can really mean, when you’re dealing with a thousand-plus-pound forest creature.

Dr. Oded Berger-Tal

Editor of ‘Conservation Behavior: Applying Behavioral Ecology to Wildlife Conservation and Management,’ Professor of desert ecology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

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Well, no.

The main reason is that bears are wild animals, and the concept of friendship is a human construct. There are many ‘cute’ videos online of men feeding wild bears and playing with them, and seeing them with our human eyes and feelings, it can be easy to call what we see friendship, of the sort we associate with domesticated dogs. The truth is that bears are very smart, which means that they easily learn to associate people in general or specific persons with food. Add the fact that most of the time bears are not aggressive animals and you have the recipe for a cute video.

The problem is that bears don’t understand the human construct called friendship, and the same bear that fed out of your hands today can easily maul you to death tomorrow – whether because it is a female bear that thinks that you are endangering her cubs, or a bear entering hibernation and looking for any food source it can find. The famous story of the ‘Grizzly man’ is a classic example—Timothy Treadwell claimed he ‘befriended’ wild Grizzly bears, spending many days in close contact with them, until one day both him and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by a bear. This story also exemplifies the main victims of these ‘friendships’—the bears. The bear that killed Timothy and his girlfriend was shot and killed. Why was the bear shot? The bear only acted according to its natural instincts, but to our eyes it ‘betrayed’ the trust of the man who considered it his friend. We impose our human concepts on wild animals and then kill them when they don’t conform to these human ideas.

Teaching bears to associate humans and human settlements with food is dangerous to humans but is especially dangerous for the bears. Once bears learn that humans = easy food, they will persistently try to obtain that food, leaving themselves at the mercy of humans that decide according to their human standards (which the bears don’t know about and can’t understand) when the bears have ‘crossed the line’ and should be killed for the protection of humans. So no, not really the stuff friendships are made of.

Gordon M. Burghardt

Alumni Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee, past editor of the Journal of Comparative Psychology and author of The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits and the chapter, Human - bear bonding in research on black bear behavior, in The Inevitable Bond 

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Getting past the issue of what is friendship and how is it measured, the question of bear-human friendship relates to cross-species bonding in general. Is a pet cat a friend? A dog? A turtle? Having raised bear cubs in my house decades ago and working with bears in behavioral research, knowing the literature, and seeing examples of close relationships that have developed with bears (and also bear-dog relationships) it is quite clear to me that close bonding is indeed possible, and that these bonds can persist, in captive bears, well into adulthood.

Bears, of course, are large, strong, and capable of severely injuring and killing people so misjudgments can be tragic. It is also difficult, compared to dogs, for most people to ‘read’ bears and their emotional expressions, so this is another impediment. We could well ask if a home-reared chimpanzee can be a friend. If so, then so can a bear given their intelligent and often social and playful behavior. Pet dogs kill far more people each year than bears, yet how many would deny that dogs are “man’s best friend?” We need to get beyond uncritical anthropomorphism (both positive and negative) in our thinking about other species and our relationships with them.

Fred Koontz

Vice President of Field Conservation at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, currently engaged in the process of grizzly bear recovery. 

For wild bears, it’s very difficult if not impossible to really have a very strong relationship at all, because there’s just not enough interaction [with human beings].

Although I would say, as a conservationist, that people should be very friendly towards wild bears, and should respect them and try to support their conservation, and realize how important they are in creating a healthy ecosystem that humans benefit from. Part of friendship is respect—but in this case it’s a one way street.

But even in zoos, bears are not “domesticated.” It doesn’t matter how many years they’ve lived in the zoo—they’re still wild animals. Keepers can build up a relationship—the bears can recognize them, and they have a certain mutual respect—but I wouldn’t call it “friendship.” Any bear is potentially dangerous.

So I would say that, no, it’s really not possible to be friends with a bear, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to have a relationship of respect and caring and empathy.

Thomas McNamee

Author of The Grizzly Bear (1984, 1990), The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone (1997), The Killing of Wolf Number Ten, and a number of other books. His latest, The Inner Life of Cats, will be published in March.

Behind and inside that question is a definitional question: whether interspecies friendship is even a realistic idea. Can you actually be friends even with your dog, or a horse? Doesn’t friendship require something approximating equal contribution to the deal? If that’s the case, then friendship with any animal is impossible.

The nearest thing to it, then, with, say, a dog, a cat, or a horse, would be something like emotional intimacy, a certain degree of mutual sympathy, and we know for sure that that is possible. With your tropical fish, though, or your boa constrictor, for sure no. What if you managed to tame a baby raccoon? Hmm. Middle ground maybe. I’d guess you might come to understand the critter a little bit, I doubt there’d be much the other way round.

There’s a guy in Montana named Casey Anderson who owns an eight-hundred-pound grizzly bear named Brutus that he rescued as a tiny cub, and he can ride around on that bear like a little kid on a pony. Anderson stars in a DVD set titled Expedition Wild (it was a series for Nat Geo Wild) on which you can see him and Brutus rolling around together like forties-movie lovers on a beach. They look like friends. Anderson in fact calls Brutus “my best friend.”

But I have to wonder, what would happen if Anderson accidentally pissed Brutus off, and Brutus took a swing at him? Bears are not noted for their equanimity of temper. (They don’t need it. They evolved without even one effective challenger.) One of the things angry grizzly bears sometimes do is sort of slug another animal—say, another bear—with the flat of a front paw. The force of that blow would be enough to shatter a human skull. Oh, and then there’s biting—force approximately one thousand pounds per square inch.

How much emotional intimacy, how much mutual understanding, can we think there really is between Casey Anderson and Brutus? When you look at them on video, and you listen to Anderson’s heartfelt affection for Brutus, it’s hard to believe that there is no emotional mutuality between them. But I believe from long study of the biological reality of Ursus arctos horribilis that it would be best for people watching those videos, especially children, to be skeptical. Otherwise, naïve sentiment and wishful belief can lead to an anthropomorphism that denies the grizzly bear its essential identity—its wildness.

In any case it’s more plausible to hypothesize that Brutus is simply very, very well trained. And a very, very dangerous friend.

Michael Dax

Author of Grizzly West: A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West; former tour guide in Yellowstone National Park; received a masters degree in environmental history from the University of Montana. His writing has appeared in Yes! Magazine, High Country News in addition to other outlets.

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Clearly, on some level, it is possible, because you do have these trained bears that appear in movies. But when you start talking about wild bears, the answer is no.

I was a tour guide in Yellowstone National Park for a few years, and while I was there, there were a handful of people who were killed by bears. The reasons varied, but eventually what it boils down to is people not respecting the animal, and thinking that, because they’re inside of a park, it might be slightly safer.

You do have examples of places like the Brooks Range in Alaska, where the bears are well-fed and there’s a cascading waterfall, which makes it a really good spot for bears to catch salmon. You’ll get more than a dozen bears gathered right there, and you’ll have people there as well, and they’ve never had a human killed by a bear at that spot, partially because there is so much food that they don’t feel competition.

But in Yellowstone National Park, where bears are much less likely to see humans early on in their lives, and where they’re not as accustomed to humans, absolutely not. For the most part, every single bear that I’ve seen in the wild has either ignored me completely, or run away at the sight of me.

There’s an ongoing theory that we have inadvertently bred out the aggressive gene in grizzly bears. If you go back and read Lewis and Clark’s journals, you will see these passages where they shoot a bear, and then the bear chases them for like a half mile while they’re shooting it, and by the time the bear finally dies it has eight bullets in it.

The theory is that the aggressive bears were the ones that were killed, and the shyer bears retreated into the mountains, and those are the bears we have left today. But even so, they’re still not our friends.

From a policy standpoint, you don’t want bears associating people with food. That’s a big problem. Once they start associating people with food, they’re going to start hanging around people, and it’s just a matter of time before something bad happens.

Doug Peacock

Naturalist and author whose books include Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness and The Essential Grizzly: The Mingled Fates of Men and Bears. He was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2007 and a Lannan Fellow in 2011 for his work on about archeology, climate change and the peopling of North America. 

You certainly can have some kind of a relationship with a bear, but I don’t think those relationships would ever be characterized as ‘man’s best friend.’

Our species has been on earth a couple hundred thousand years—not that long. Humans have known grizzly bears for about a hundred thousand years. But they’re wild animals. The people I know that have relationships with grizzlys are animal trainers—for instance, Doug Seus, who trained Bart the Bear in Legends of the Fall and many other movies. Doug has an amazing relationship with a bear. Mainly what he did was spend two or three hours a day wrastling with this 1400 pound animal, and their relationship was formed when the bear was young, and the way he treated that bear over sixteen years, it became sort of arrested in adolescence—what we call a sub-adult bear.

I knew Timothy Treadwell. After his first year in Alaska he came to see me, when I was in Arizona. I think he probably just wanted approval. And I gave him advice—but he didn’t take all of it, that’s for damn sure. He gave the bears goofy names, and he loved them—Boopie and Honey and whatnot. But this is what Timothy tragically missed: Wild creatures, like bears, accept us only according to their own dictates, and they’re truly impervious to human agendas and expectations.

I’ve had several relationships with wild grizzlies that I had encountered for weeks at a time spanning about a decade. And a couple of them were pretty dangerous bears.

There was this one big huge black grizzly that would come up there every year. You could look down a little valley [where I camped], and you could probably see ten grizzlies spaced out eating huckleberries peacefully. But when this huge male would show up late in the year, all hell would break loose. He’d come in, and mothers of cubs would just scatter.

One day I was coming up this ridge, going up to my camp at the very top of this little mountain range. A winter storm was coming in, so I had to get up there. All of a sudden, I saw that black grizzly down below me, on the side of the hill. There was a mother with a yearling cub just above him, and I realized that this cantankerous son of a bitch was going to see this mother and go after her.

And that’s what happened, right underneath me: All of a sudden there was a roar. The mother of the yearling raced across the ridge, about thirty, fifty feet in front of me—they didn’t know I was there. Finally the black grizzly started to catch up with her, because her yearling cub was dragging behind. The black grizzly was only a few feet behind her.

At the last minute she sprung on her heels, and they fought. The most incredible sounds in nature you’ll ever hear—a full-blown grizzly fight. This went on for three or four minutes. Then all of a sudden he stopped and turned his side to the mother bear, signaling the fight was over.

Well, I still needed to get up to my camp, because this blizzard was coming in. But right in front of me, on this ridge, was the most cantankerous animal I knew on this earth, all juiced up from his unresolved fight. I had to talk to him, and it looked like he was just going to go back to eating huckleberries. But he was right between me and my camp, so I had to talk to him. And when I talk to grizzly bears, I normally have my arms out, and my head turned off to the side, ‘cause frontal orientation of your head is confrontational to a bear. And then I talk.

And when he first heard my voice, he took—I would call it a hop-charge. He covered half his distance from me in one great big bound. He slammed his paws to the ground, and by then he was within ten yards away, and I think I’m gonna get it. There’s nothing I can do, so I just keep talking to him.

And finally he turned his head gracefully off to the side, stepped up the trail a few feet, and I swooped by him and went up to my camp.

I normally don’t built a fire out there, because I don’t want to disturb the bears, but that night I did. And an hour after dark I hear him coming up the side of this really steep hill. I go out to the side of the hill, and I can see his little reddish eyes in the glow of the fire. He’s thirty feet away, and I talk to him, but he doesn’t go away. He comes back up another side of the hill about every hour and a half, and he does this till 2 in the morning. Then later, at that same place, I left a cache of gear tied way up in a tree—a tent, a sleeping bag, a dirty t-shirt—and he just tore it out of there. Didn’t touch anything—he was just sending me a very personal message to get the hell off his mountain. Which I did.

Shannon Donahue

Executive Director of the Great Bear Foundation

Bears are charismatic species that capture the human imagination, between the way grizzly bears require and symbolize a wild, open landscape, and the way we relate to some of their human-like qualities. Bears and people share habitat, eat the same foods, and enjoy a balance of solitary and social activity... Curiosity is a key component of bears’ nature, driving them to investigate and test new things in their environment, so they can adapt to change and take advantage of new food sources, and avoid threats. Curiosity is an important part of human behavior, as well, and it may be part of why we are so captivated by bears, and why, sometimes, humans are motivated to try to “befriend” bears, or at least interact with them.

Bears are at the top of their food chain, and as such, they have some leeway to take calculated risks, weighing potential threats against benefits. Sometimes it benefits a bear to take a risk in order to enjoy a benefit—like when a bear chooses to fish for salmon, or eat huckleberries, alongside other bears, or humans. The bear recognizes the potential risk from other bears and humans, but by accepting that risk and muting its stress response, it can take advantage of abundant food sources, crucial for putting on weight to survive the winter.

This response, which is part of a process called habituation, can result in individual bears becoming more tolerant of people, if they take risks being around people without negative consequences. Often, as bears become habituated to people, they also learn to associate us with a food source, like garbage, picnic items, the fish we just caught, or pet food, and they learn that there can be short-term benefits to interacting with people. This is called human-food conditioning, and it is dangerous to both humans and bears, influencing how bears relate to people.

Bears and humans can share habitat successfully if we both acknowledge the risks we pose to each other, and we take care not to encourage bears to interact with us. When we get close to bears to photograph them, or fail to scare them away from our camp or picnic sites, we give them the false impression that they can be close to humans without harm. Often, they test their boundaries, and if we let them, they will raid our garbage and chicken coops, and even break into houses for food. Bears are killed unnecessarily every year when they get into trouble after learning to spend time close to humans, taking advantage of our food sources. This is also dangerous for people, pets and livestock, as bears can aggressively defend their food sources. This is why the National Park Service stopped tolerating bears in dumps in the 1970s, and why municipal, state, and government agencies often ban feeding bears, or allowing them access to bear attractants like garbage, pet food, and our own food.

Bears are fascinating creatures that pique our curiosity and symbolize wildness. When humans interact with them, we undermine that wildness, and encourage them to take risks that can hurt both people and bears. While it can be possible to develop an interactive relationship with a bear, it usually results in the death of the bear, and sometimes harm to humans as well. Bears are best left wild.